Sunday, June 14, 2015

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4
26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

You either love it or hate it.

You are minding your own business, watching a movie or a television show, and suddenly someone looks directly at the camera and begins speaking. Or maybe the character says nothing, and simply looks in the direction of the audience. In dramatic terms, the fourth wall has been breached.

Woody Allen did it in Annie Hall. Frank Underwood regularly speaks to the audience in House of Cards. And in the seemingly new genre called the mockumentary (The Office, Modern Family) characters add commentary to the unfolding story, pausing to speak to documentarian who remains off-screen. And, of course, I need to mention The Wonder Years, breaking ground as a family comedy narrated by a grown-up version of the lead character himself.

The fourth wall, then, is the imaginary wall between the stage and the audience. Most often it remains intact, with the audience content to watch the drama unfold with all the the necessary amounts of suspended belief. But every once in a while—and to great effect—the audience is drawn into the story.

In Shakespeare’s day, you might find actors in the audience, perhaps chasing another character onto the stage. Maybe an actor would speak an aside to the audience, mocking another member of the cast. You might even find a character enlisting the help of a member of audience in some way, like hiding a prop that’s part of the story.[1]

And, of course, this doesn’t begin with Shakespeare. It can be found in Greek drama and literature, and it can be found in the Bible. In the passage Sylvia read for us we find a prime example, verses 33 and 34:

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

We’ll unpack Mark’s aside in moment, and try to understand where it fits in the unfolding story of Jesus, but first we need to look at this idea of breaking the fourth wall in the Bible. Why do it? And what does it achieve? And what do we learn through the words that are addressed to the reader rather than the participants in the story?

The first reason would be to teach. Readers are students, and as we follow the story there will inevitably be details or concepts that are lost on the reader. And if these are lost on the first readers, from the same time and the same culture, how much more will they be lost on us? So the aside is a tool to help both present and future readers understand. Mark 7 provides a perfect example:

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

In Jesus’ most scatological of stories, Mark is trying to preserve the exchange between the master and students, but obviously lacks confidence that the full implications of the parable will be clear to the audience. “In saying this...” becomes a lesson for the next generation of students, and for us, wherever we number in the generations.[2]

Another purpose is to admonish, or warn the reader—in case you are taking the story too lightly. Various illustrations are literally life-and-death for the reader, and sometimes Mark seems to be unconvinced that his readers understand the gravity of the information being relayed. Listen to Mark 13:

12 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 13 Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Four little words—let the reader understand—but the impact couldn’t be greater. Mark’s so-called ‘little apocalypse’ is describing the end of time, when the Son of Man will appear in the clouds with power and great glory, to gather the elect and save them from the unfolding tribulation. You might think the topic itself, and the “M for Mature” content might be enough to grab the attention of the reader, but Mark goes further. He actually reaches from the pages of his Gospel and grabs us by the scruff of the neck and says “let the reader understand.” Okay, I get it. Mark, let go.

The final reason is the need to comfort or fortify the reader, something that is actually hidden in that brief passage that led to this discussion. Listen again:

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

Mark’s aside describes to the reader what was happening in this moment, the moment immediately after Jesus shared the Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed. And I think it’s safe to say the disciples were struggling. Whenever someone says ‘as much as you can understand’ you’re allowed to take offense, since you’ve just been insulted. So we know the disciples were trying to keep up, and Mark just told us they were failing.

Next Mark says “he didn’t say anything to them without using a parable,” which we know, of course, in not true. We just looked at a long description of the apocalypse, not spoken in parables, but in terrifying prose. So maybe what Mark meant was ‘they heard everything as if it was spoken in parables,’ which is accurate since they rarely seemed to understand.

And then this: ‘when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.’ Now this makes sense. Better to finish the lesson in private, so as not to embarrass the group, since they were often missing the mark on these important Kingdom lessons. Having clueless students will eventually reflect badly on the teacher—something I’m sure Jesus was trying to avoid.

The comfort and fortification comes as the reader realizes that we too are struggling, and since we are in good company, no one need worry. If the people who followed Jesus each day couldn’t understand, then we can forgive ourselves for sometimes failing to understand.

Ironically, the best way to understand the Growing Seed and the Mustard Seed, and how they demonstrate the Kingdom, is to look at another aside in the Bible. And this one, coming at the very end of John’s Gospel, brings together mysterious growth and surprizing growth found in the this morning’s parables. John writes:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (21:25)

Anyone reading the Gospels and pondering the length of Jesus’ earthly ministry will inevitably say ‘that’s it? That’s all there is?’ Surely he healed more and taught more an shared more inscrutable wisdom through parables. Surely more happened to transform workers and tax collectors and sinners into a group a followers that would someday transform the world.

The Kingdom of God is like a group of people who spend each day with Jesus and go from ordinary people like you and me and grow into the church that reaches down to today. And likewise, the Kingdom of God is like a handful of stories, shared in the distant past, yet growing in importance and meaning that even now as we gather in the protective shelter of the Word of God.

May we too be parables, signs of God’s Kingdom, matchless in growth and vibrant in describing the God we adore. Amen.

[2] Suggested by James L. Resseguie, Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction.


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